Way over yonder in the major key
Webster’s first definition of “jig” is “Any of various lively dances in triple time.” With that in mind, remember all of those shows you saw at 8150 this year, and how the floor bounced with the energy shared? But until you’ve experienced Yonder Mountain String Band’s live show – with Darol Anger on fiddle – you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. They play tonight at 10.
Yonder Mountain String Band has been a powerhouse bluegrass quartet since 1998 and includes Jeff Austin on mandolin, Ben Kaufmann on bass, Dave Johnston on banjo, Adam Aijala on guitar while everyone throws in some vocals.
Yonder’s most recent album, Old Hands, was a labor of love, according to the band, as the Colorado boys developed the music to best fit songwriter Benny Galloway’s lyrics.
Austin more recently released an album with Chris Castino from the Big Wu called Songs from the Tin Shed.
Fresh off his first tour with Castino, Austin is ready to play some more fast and furious bluegrass. He spent some time on the phone with the Vail Daily last week:
Well, how are you doing?
I’m good. I’m playing Mr. Domestic right now. I’m getting ready to take the couch cushions outside and give ’em a good bangin’ and run around with the dogs and all that good stuff … vacuuming. I’m Mr. Domestic … Mr. Domestic; I’m sure that’s how everybody views me.
Speaking of, how does your wife deal with you being on tour all the time?
Oh God (laughs). You could have ended that question right there. That’s the question for the ages, I think. Well we don’t have any kids, yet, but we’ve got dogs and that’s plenty.
Let’s talk about “Songs from the Tin Shed.”
It was a total treat to make. It was a great project, and it turned out well.
Did you stick with the mandolin, or did you branch out into other instruments?
Well, in this one I played a couple different kinds of mandolins. I played my good old Flatiron F that I play all the time. I played a great early – you know 1908 – Gibson. I played an octave mandolin that I got a year and a half ago from a great company called Weber. So, I played a bunch of stuff you know. No craziness; haven’t played the guitar risk yet, but we were just out on tour with it. Chris Castino and I and Benny Galloway – who wrote the lyrics for “Old Hands'” – he came out on the road with Chris and I and we made some music for a couple weeks, and I did play some guitar on that.
How does it compare to Yonder’s music?
Well, we lean more toward the tune. It’s entirely different from Yonder Mountain. There’s enough there that will be familiar so people won’t be totally freaked out. There is some familiarity that is there, but there’s plenty that’s different so it’s not just like “Oh, hey, look … it’s the lead guy from Yonder doin’ this.” It definitely has enough differences to keep you interested, but also enough familiarity to not make you scared.
Did you throw in some bluegrass?
To be honest with you, this record is folk-Americana all the way. There’s two tunes that slightly resemble bluegrass, but only in their tempo and maybe their arrangement. Besides that it’s not a bluegrass record. It’s really kind of a folk record.
Is it slower in pace?
It’s kind of a country record … definitely slower in pace. On this last tour we had people going “Play faster!” and it’s like, “Hey, we play fast all the time.” This is something a little different and it gives us a chance to play. I don’t normally like to play fast-ass bluegrass, I like to play different stuff too. It is something that I’m really proud of and definitely another side of me that I wanted people who might be interested in what I do to see. … This was really a project that was dear to the heart and we’ve already started kicking around ideas, “When should we do the next one?'” We got back this past Sunday from the only tour we’ve done with it, and had such a damn good time that the ideas were really just bouncing. “Yeah … we could do that … and that, and that.” And it was like little kids getting all amped up. I was ready for a nice little booster. Something to spark the interest – not that it had gone anywhere – but for another realm to kind of excite you to play music.
So speaking of other realms, you have a big background in musical theater. Do you have any plans of writing a bluegrass musical?
That’s actually a really cool idea. I know that Chris and I were like, “Hey, we should write a musical … that would be cool.” I would someday like to do that again. Maybe some little bit part … that would be so much damn fun. That would really be cool. We joked about it one time, but I never really thought about it seriously. Maybe it’s something that I should start thinking about … what could the story be?
Oh, I don’t know. Alright, let’s talk about your influences. What are you listening to right now?
All my influences are pretty wide. Right now I’m listening to a lot of songwriters that I’m a big fan of. That’s kind of where my mode has been. I’ve been listening to a lot of a guy named Todd Snider. I love Todd’s writing. He’s a great musician; he totally inspires me. I’ve been listening to a lot of Jay Farrar from Sun Volt and Tupelo. Same thing with Todd, he gets me all pumped up. Benny Galloway – I’ve been listening to a lot of him too. I’ve really been delving into the whole songwriter thing … John Hartford. Those four guys have been really staple when I sit down and listen to music.
Let’s talk about songwriting. How did you start? Are there any constants or things that you do now that you didn’t do before?
Well, I think I noticed some constants in my writing. I think every writer finds them. Like the way that you’ll turn your bridge around or the way that the verse will come into the chorus. I think that all songwriters have traits that they’ll leave on their tunes. I definitely have a pattern that I like that’s almost like a call-and-response in my chorus where the group will sing a line and then I’ll sing a line. As far as writing tunes, it’s usually the case that I’ll be incredibly lazy about it. I’m like, “What the hell, I’m not a songwriter, I’m just sitting here.” But then you’ll hit a wellspring and they just start coming out like the purge almost. It either comes roaring on or there’s a period of total drought. I try to keep my mind working, write stuff down, even if it’s just a turn of phrase.
Is there something that comes first when it comes to lyrics and music?
It really depends. With “Snow on the Pines” I sat down and came up with the riff … you know, it’s got this driving thing. I thought, “We don’t have a song that has this driving edge to it.” At certain times, I’ll listen to bands and think, “Oh, here’s this band’s sort of ‘Iko Iko’ tune (demonstrates musically).” It’s that feel. They probably looked in their repertoire and said, “Man, we don’t have anything that has that feel to it.” I do the same thing. It really varies. Sometimes I write the tune – all the lyrics – and it’s like, “Wham!” And I have the instrumentalization in my head. It’s pretty rare that I’ll just write lyrics and not have an idea where it’s going musically.
Do you guys have any pre-game rituals?
(Laughs) There’s the meditation, then there’s the prayer. No, I’d say one of our only pre-game rituals is to try to be together. We try to be together right before we go on stage for at least like five or 10 minutes – just us. So we can kind of get in each other’s head space, and sometimes we’ve been known to do a group tequila shot before the show. It’s almost a unifying thing – the way I look at it – because you’re all there, you’re all looking at each other. “Clink, clink. Alright, we’re all in this together.” If you’re going out to war, you gotta make sure your whole army’s there; gotta make sure your army’s focused. Sometimes these shows we play are really intense and long. We’re like a little army.
Andrew Harley can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext.610, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.